Jeff Stevens was named 2013 Hot Country Producer by Billboard and was honored with the publication’s 2014 Top Country Album honor for his work with high profile client Luke Bryan. But like all the “overnight success” stories on the streets of 16th and 17th, his story began a while back.
“Our parents bought my brother and I a couple of old Stella Harmonies for Christmas,” remembers producer/songwriter Jeff Stevens. “A year later we found ourselves on stage singing “Folsom Prison Blues“ at a talent show. “We won and that’s how it all started. My Dad saw a career for us and it ruled our life from that age forward. I wrote my first song at 13. Country music was my world, my realm. I knew it back then.”
Songwriting became the car that Stevens rode into Nashville. His hit song “Sweet Country Music” earned him a BMI Awards invitation in 1984. “I actually threw away the invitation at first,” he says. “I didn’t know what it was. My wife Sandy is smarter than me and she found it in the trash and simply said, We’re going. Little did I know I would receive an award that night, get greeted by Frances Preston and be a small part of all those big time songwriters.”
Song success helped Stevens get signed to Atlantic America and move to Music City. But after the record didn’t do well he, his wife and their three kids endured some lean years. “I spent about six years doing any odd job I could find,” he remembers. But his songs started to find their mark on the charts and by 1993 Stevens had two songs in the Top 10 of the Billboard Country singles chart.
The following NEKST interview talks about the production process, finding the best songs, staying fresh and Nashville’s future.. READ ON
NEKST: You sit in all sections of the creative theater as an artist, writer and producer. How did you expand into all three areas so successfully?
Jeff Stevens: It began with an artist career, a record deal and years of touring which helped me understand what it takes to please an audience. That process by necessity moved into writing songs which I discovered was like falling off a log for me. As a songwriter I learned about studios, the Nashville industry and how to make recordings. I’ve always been a bit of an electronic geek. It’s not my top thing, but I’m fascinated by compressors and EQs and recording mediums. I love tape, digital and pro tools and I know what I like when I hear it. Developing those skills naturally morphed into the production thing. I met my first production client, Jerry Kilgore, in a songwriting session. I loved what he did enough to try and help him record and enlisted some help from my friends Steve Bogard and Scott Hendricks. After that, nobody came along for a while that I went crazy over until Luke Bryan, who I also met on a songwriting session. I remember saying to my engineer the first time we recorded, “I love this guy.”
NEKST: What is your process for putting together an album?
Jeff Stevens: Step one is all about getting to know the artist and their musical tastes. It would be difficult for me to work with an artist who didn’t already have a firm direction. And it goes deeper than just the songs or the artist’s vocal capabilities. It’s something inside of them that attracts people. When I find somebody with those qualities, then it is time to cull through songs they’ve written or that I’ve co-written with them. My secret sauce is I believe to my core in a non-attachment to the money side of the song so my email is open and I listen—myself— to songs from everyone. Luke only had one or two songs on his last record and that’s not because he wasn’t trying. There are great writers in this town, people that sit down every day to write. We actively search, not just out of respect for their talents, but because I want my artists to have long term careers and achieve the largest audience they possibly can. The songwriter in me realizes you never know where you’ll find that great song that will propel a career. Why would anyone leave out great material from great writers? But I see that done a lot.
NEKST: A few decades ago before “maximizing revenue streams” and “keeping everything in house” entered the equation, didn’t every Nashville producer work that way?
Jeff Stevens: I’m not judging, because everyone is free to do what they see fit. But for me it seems like a real career compromise to not honestly listen for the very best songs. Look at Garth Brooks, Alabama, Alan Jackson and Kenny Chesney. They were all great songwriters, but they recorded outside songs. My point is made. Song choice is a priority with Luke, and we believe it is a cornerstone of his success. Record labels put a lot of thought into the process of putting out new music such as the looks and styling of the artist, the packaging, and on whose tour they will be positioned, countless things. But at the core of it all, if the song doesn’t connect, it makes all those marketing jobs so much harder. I want to try and make their jobs easy for them..
NEKST: How do you pare songs down?
Jeff Stevens: I like to concentrate and spend a lot of time with the songs. If you pitch a song to me in the month before we are about to record it’s probably not going to get cut no matter how great it is because I need time to think about it. That’s an important part of our process and Luke is the same way. We live with the songs for a long time. Then when it comes down to picking it is no different than someone making an iTunes playlist. You just say, “I love that one, and that one.”
NEKST: Do you ever have Luke try a song on vocally first?
Jeff Stevens: No. I go totally by his instinct and intuition. His sense of who he is and what works best for him is impeccable. I have been able to talk him into a few songs and I can admit on some of those instances they fell flat and didn’t work. I look back on it and that’s how I learned that he is the artist and I’m in front of him helping to point the way kind of like an old man with a flashlight [laughs], that’s my job. And we respect each other’s roles.
NEKST: What about the constant pressure to incorporate new sounds and stay fresh in the studio?
Jeff Stevens: Well, it’s bloody. When Luke and I started out we had a totally different band and attitude than we do now. We were feeding from the original song we wrote that got him the record deal. It had fiddle and steel and Capitol signed him on the strength of that recording. So our first album sounded a lot like Strait. That introduced Luke to America and enabled him to go out and take audience feedback. I go out to a lot of his shows too. Recognizing that feedback we’d make changes like a new drummer, bass player or changing up the background vocals. Today we challenge ourselves on every record to sound fresh and it is a lot of work. It involves hiring different engineers and folks that are capable of making newer sounds. Sometimes I hear highly produced songs and I like them, but when I think of Luke or any artist I’m producing the last thing I want someone to say is, “I love that record.” I want them to say, “I love Luke Bryan or Hannah Dasher, or Ryan Lafferty.” It’s their personality that I want the audience to experience. I love the beats, bells and whistles, but what I want the audience to be thinking about is the artist, their investment in that voice and the human part of it. That’s what I carry forward from the music of the ’60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. I love computers and what you can do with them, but they can overpower the artist career if not balanced properly.
NEKST: Jump in our NEKST helicopter and let’s look down on the streets of Music Row. What’s your assessment about artist co-writes and country’s ongoing musical evolution?
Jeff Stevens: There has always been a lot of mixing between pop and country through the years. Ray Price put strings on some of his songs, for example, and made a lot of people mad. Myself, I relish the changes and accept them. When I want to hear something that throws back I’ll listen to some of the great music that was made at that time. Speaking about songwriting from the helicopter co-pilot seat (I hope I’m not the pilot), I have such a high degree of respect for songs and songwriters that I know Nashville has nothing without fresh, original songs. It may be unpopular to say, but about twenty years ago I started to notice managers, publishers and record labels putting singers who may or may not have ever written a song in a room with a couple of professional writers. I admit you could write a Song Of The Year in that configuration, but more often what happens is that the songs get watered down because a great songwriter is more of less trying to find a way to write something that this artist can deliver. It takes away so much of the inspiration and the drive for just saying, “Let’s write a great song. What’s on your mind?” I honestly believe that many possibly great careers never get off the ground because when they reach into the song bucket they only take their own songs. What would serve them better is to yes, write your ass off, but then also accept, listen and open your heart to songs from outside writers that the audience will love.
NEKST: Are you bullish about the future for Nashville?
Jeff Stevens: Gosh, I really am. Nashville will do what Nashville has always done, we will roll with the future and still have our imprint. It’s going to be really hard to wash our country out of us. Even now we’ve got these beats and snippets of what I laughingly call Hip-Hop, but it does’t sound like Hip-Hop at all. It’s still country. It may not sound like Patsy Cline, but it’s like what Chet Atkins once said, “If we make it here in Nashville—it’s country.”